Tortured Questioning

A bit late for it, but there's finally a worthwhile conversation about "torture" in Catholic teaching over at Inside Catholic. Start at Deal Hudson's post: Is Torture One of The Church's Non-Negotiables? A lot more follows in comments, and he points you to other links, including a discussion at Vox Nova and Fr. Brian Harrison's excellent treatment of the topic concluding "torture" can be acceptable in extremely limited circumstances. (I'm using the scare quotes because I think torture properly understood is intrinsically evil, but remain unconvinced that everything we're calling torture these days merits the label.)

Fr. Harrison addresses for me my own question: what is torture? I am well aware of several outspoken Catholic apologists who snort at that question as if the answer were self-evident to all honest men, but it isn't to me. For starters, there's a delegate in California who annually tries to define spanking a child as torture, so clearly we don't all start on the same page.

Even deciding what exactly we mean by torture is not easy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as "physical or moral violence" (CCC 2297); the definition given by the 1984 United Nations Convention on Torture is "the intentional infliction of severe pain." The words violence and severe are themselves somewhat vague. Who draws the line — and where? — as to which specific practices are harsh enough to correspond to those words? What has become clear in the contemporary debate is that while many shudder-evoking practices (which needn't be spelled out here) are recognized by everyone as meriting the name torture, there is no consensus about whether other less extreme interrogation techniques really count as torture: for instance, sleep deprivation, being kept under harsh temperatures or in uncomfortable positions, or "waterboarding" (which causes a brief, panic-inducing sensation of being about to drown but no pain or injury). Since no Catholic magisterial intervention so far offers any real guidance for resolving this controversy, the only methods we can be sure are included under "torture," when that word appears in Church documents, are those in the former group.

Where the subject of Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques" comes in, while every fiber of my being has the Shepard Smith reaction to "torture" (I don't care if it helps or not, this is America, we don't do that), I simply can't consider putting a guy in a room with a bug torture. Waterboarding? I honestly don't know. We do it routinely to our own servicemen to train them (and the men I know who've endured it scoff at the idea of its being torture; is that bravado or educated opinion?) and its purpose is precisely not to kill, maim or do any lasting psychological harm to the target.

Is torture both deliberately to inflict as much pain as possible with utter indifference to the harm done to the person --indeed with delight in it?-- and also deliberately to punish while taking every precaution to preserve the individual from lasting harm?

That's what throws me: my own private definition (subject to education, re-thinking and correction), what I naturally consider torture, is the deliberate effort to maim and/or inflict severe pain and/or humiliation and/or psychological harm on another person. And I'd probably add: because you enjoy it or because you can. I think of true torture as having a dimension that is purely mean or depraved --and therefore is an intrinsic affront to the dignity of both the tortured and the torturer.

My own checklist is as follows.
  • Death sentences carried out by any means other than as swiftly and painlessly as possible? Torture.
  • Deliberate maiming? Torture.
  • Inflicting pain by highly imaginative methods (indicating you savor the process)? Torture.
  • Doing anything to inflict pain and suffering on lawful enemy combatants you capture? Torture.
  • Doing anything to hurt captured persons --even masterminds-- long after they've ceased to have any contact with the outside world? Torture.
  • Sexual deeds performed on captives? Torture.
  • Abu Ghraib? Torture.
  • Bush Admin's "enhanced interrogations"? Not sure.
The Geneva conventions protect lawful enemy combatants largely because they recognize that armies and navies are peopled by folks following orders, not those responsible for strategies and policies. You capture one of them? Keep him off the battlefield til the war ends, but treat him decently: he's just a bloke.

Masterminds? That's a different matter. And of course with acts of terrorism, every participant is in a way a mastermind. Each cell has its own plans, so every terrorist you capture, it's like getting Rommel or Goering in a way. You're not going to ask him any questions? Or you're going to limit yourself to asking him pretty please to betray his cause? It's hard for me to believe that's what the Church requires.

Which is usually the point in the discussion when, as I've complained before, someone says "you may not do evil that good may come." Right principle, certainly, but it begs the question of whether or not the act under discussion is or is not an intrinsic evil. I'm not confident that the Church's ban on torture bars any and all enhanced interrogation techniques. If there is Just War, then there is right use of the means to win the war, right?

There are additional questions: the effect of enhanced interrogation on the persons who perform the deeds. Do waterboarders become coarse people, ruined by the experience?

And --what worries me more-- the deleterious effect of even having this conversation publicly. As bad as it will be for the country's defense if the Obama administration wins this fight (by political show trial, revelation of secrets that expose our agents in the field, riling up hatred for our nation, etc.), I worry equally that it will lose --with the result that more people blithely accept "torture" as a legitimate thing. This is coarsening our already coarsened culture.

Until persuaded otherwise, I think there really is a significant moral (not merely semantic) difference between torture and enhanced interrogation, and the muddled conversation we've been having --both the political one in public and the moral one taking place behind the scenes-- isn't shedding much light. Probably good people can disagree on whether or not waterboarding is torture; but if we call putting a guy who fears bugs in a room with a caterpillar "torture," I think the majority of Americans are going to say, "Hell, yes, we torture!" That's not a happy result. Not at all. And if it's being done, as I suspect, just to humiliate Bush & Cheney --merely for partisan political purposes-- it's stupid and profoundly wicked as well.

P.S. Fr. Harrison has a much longer treatment of the torture question here. I haven't read it yet, although I did scroll to the end for his conclusion: three instances in which infliction of punishment is intrinsically unjust, one in which it isn't, and one open question.

Update: w/ respect to the politics of it all, former CIA director Porter Goss has a few choice words.

Let me be clear. It is my recollection that:

-- The chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.

-- We understood what the CIA was doing.

-- We gave the CIA our bipartisan support.

-- We gave the CIA funding to carry out its activities.

-- On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support from Congress to carry out its mission against al-Qaeda.

I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues. They did not vote to stop authorizing CIA funding. And for those who now reveal filed "memorandums for the record" suggesting concern, real concern should have been expressed immediately -- to the committee chairs, the briefers, the House speaker or minority leader, the CIA director or the president's national security adviser -- and not quietly filed away in case the day came when the political winds shifted.
Three reasons why it matters:

Unfortunately, much of the damage to our capabilities has already been done. It is certainly not trust that is fostered when intelligence officers are told one day "I have your back" only to learn a day later that a knife is being held to it. After the events of this week, morale at the CIA has been shaken to its foundation.

We must not forget: Our intelligence allies overseas view our inability to maintain secrecy as a reason to question our worthiness as a partner. These allies have been vital in almost every capture of a terrorist.

The suggestion that we are safer now because information about interrogation techniques is in the public domain conjures up images of unicorns and fairy dust. We have given our enemy invaluable information about the rules by which we operate. The terrorists captured by the CIA perfected the act of beheading innocents using dull knives. Khalid Sheik Mohammed boasted of the tactic of placing explosives high enough in a building to ensure that innocents trapped above would die if they tried to escape through windows. There is simply no comparison between our professionalism and their brutality.

Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. "Name, rank and serial number" does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask. Instead of taking risks, our intelligence officers will soon resort to wordsmithing cables to headquarters while opportunities to neutralize brutal radicals are lost.

Exactly. We're going to turn our own people into a bunch of Bagdad Bobs.

Plus (here's the transcript):

On the other hand: Our Hearts Fail; the strongest anti-waterboarding argument; and this does sound like torture to me:
Among the procedures was prolonged stress-standing with arms chained above the head while the victim is made to stand naked for days, compelled to defecate and urinate in place.
And why do we subject our own guys to waterboarding? Isn't it to toughen them up against the tortures they'll face at the hands of unscrupulous enemies?